New Yale professor of psychology Yarrow Dunham wants to understand what makes social groups tick. His research focuses on intergroup social cognition — how humans divide into social groups and how these groups interact. Dunham’s research hones in on the intersection between developmental psychology and social interactions to understand how kids learn about groups. The News talked with Dunham about the origin of his interest in the field and his recent research about in-group preferences among Indian youths.


Q: How did you become interested in intergroup interaction and social cognition?

A: I guess I just always thought it’s a fundamental part of what it means to be human, something that our species does that a lot of other species do maybe a little bit, but not nearly as robustly or as complexly. One of the things I think is really interesting is that, when you look at any other person, you can think about them as kind of belonging to your group, or belonging to some other group — almost for the same person you can switch back and forth. I’m kind of interested in that process: When do we decide that someone is like us vs. like them, over there, even when that person hasn’t changed?


Q: You recently published a paper on how religious in-group preferences differ from in-group preferences based on other social distinctions. What made you decide to conduct your research in India? 

A: I think there are a lot of interesting things about the particular setting. There’s been a lot of research in the United States and in Europe especially focusing on race, and I’ve done some of that work too, and I think that’s a great thing to study, but it’s only one kind of limited set. If you look across the whole world and especially if you think back through history, for most of human history, racial distinctions were not the most salient or the most important ones. India is really interesting because it’s this incredibly diverse, multicultural country, but the main distinctions are really not so much racialized. While we were there, we were really interested in two things: one was the traditional Hindu caste system, which has several different levels, and it’s very explicitly hierarchical. That, in some ways, is like race, in that we think about race as also being hereditary, to some degree. But [the caste system] is also really different in a lot of ways, in that it’s explicitly tied to a religious ideology and very explicitly hierarchical. Religion, on the other hand, is quite different in that we usually think about it as something we choose. We can choose to be or to not be a member of a religion. It is, of course, linked to a lot of rich ideologies about how the world is and how one should behave, so [race and religion] seem like very nice contrasting cases to look at.


Q: Your research concluded that religion acts as an “insulator.” Could you explain more about the psychological underpinnings of that phenomenon? 

A: [We found that] most people preferred higher-castes to lower-castes, almost irrespective of what your own caste position was. Even if you were lower in caste, you still preferred higher-caste to lower-caste. But with religion, we didn’t find that pattern. We might have expected that Hindus, [a dominant majority], would show stronger preferences for their own group than Muslims, [a minority], would [for other Muslims], but we did not, in fact, find that. We found that both groups showed equally strong preference in favor of their own group. When we say that religion is an “insulator,” what we mean is that in other cases, it seems like you internalize a little bit of your own group’s low status, but religion seemed to protect or that seemed to not happen with respect to religion.

We don’t know exactly why that is yet but there are some, I think, obvious possibilities. Religion is an identity that at least people think of themselves as having chosen. So if you feel like you’ve chosen this identity, it functions a little bit differently than something you were born into and that you can’t change even if you wanted to. Religions also often have this narrative of spiritual superiority. Many religions talk about having the unique lease on truth, they know what’s really true, they are going to protect you all the way through, maybe for eternity and in the afterlife. That’s another possibility is that the reason it insulates is because of those broader stories and the beliefs they’re embedded in.


Q: Do you think that religion being an insulator could have larger implications for combating different in-group stigmas?

A: The first thing we need to do is figure out why religion shows those insulating properties. It could be something really unique to religion, or it could just be that for these kids we studied, religion was really really important to them, and any identity that is really really important will be insulating in this way. That’s one of the things we want to figure out. If we looked at people in the United States, say, members of an ethnic minority, but their ethnic identity is really really important to them, would those people also show the same kind of insulating effect? We need to figure that out, because the answer really depend[s] on why we’re seeing the effect in the first place, whether it’s really specific to religion. We think it’s probably not super-specific — it might be easier to emerge in religion, but we think it’s probably something about the nature of the identity, so we want to figure that out.